Washington Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke is serious about a proposal to build a 78,600-seat football stadium on 55 acres of land adjacent to Laurel Race Course and the only impediment would be if he does not get a green light from state officials, a source with direct knowledge of the negotiations said yesterday.
But that green light might never come.
Page W. Boinest, spokeswoman for Gov. William Donald Schaefer, said yesterday that Schaefer does not now support a Redskins stadium in Laurel, which would create a "Meadowlands South."
"He is working on getting a team for Baltimore," Boinest said. "If the Laurel deal should work out, it would definitely hurt Baltimore's chances. He certainly would not plan to help those discussions along at all, because it could slam the door on any effort to get a team."
According to the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, Cooke would buy the land outright from Laurel and would not be involved in the ownership of the track. The stadium would be built on land situated on Brock Bridge Road adjacent to the track.
Reports that Cooke was thinking about moving the Redskins to Anne Arundel County caught County Executive Robert R. Neall by surprise.
"I'm in a real information deficit," Neall said. "I would like to know what exactly is being proposed and have some information before I tell somebody whether it's welcome."
Neall said that he has not heard from Cooke or his representatives.
"If this is for real, I think it's great. But we've got to be careful," said Del. Tim Maloney, a Democrat from Prince George's County who is chairman of the House Capital Budget subcommittee, which appropriates funds for state transportation and related projects. "We don't want the state used as a bargaining chip for Jack Kent Cooke to locate a team elsewhere. I'm a proponent of Camden Yards first. But we also have to consider what's best for all of Maryland and not worry about some artificial jurisdictional lines.
"If the Laurel proposal is for real, I think it could be a rallying point for unifying the state. There is too much 'us vs. them' between the 410 and 301 area codes, and one of the perfect ways to do that is through a sports team. Laurel is a perfect location. I know there are die-hard Baltimoreans and die-hard Washingtonians, but we've got to look beyond that. And really, if we're talking about being skeptical of Jack Kent Cooke, look at the people we've been dealing with in the NFL [to get an expansion team]."
Cooke recently has become involved in what the source termed "serious" negotiations with Laurel operator Joe De Francis. Cooke, the source said, would be willing to put up most of the money to build the stadium. Public money would be required to assist in building infrastructure facilities, such as roads and sewerage.
De Francis declined to comment yesterday, but Alan Rifkin, an attorney representing Laurel, said that both Cooke and De Francis are sensitive to Governor Schaefer's attempt to get an NFL team for Baltimore.
"Not only does [De Francis] live in Baltimore, but his father [the late Frank De Francis] was secretary of the Department of Economic and Employment Development and worked side by side with the governor to keep the Colts from moving out of
state," Rifkin said. "But in weighing the situation, he realizes that it is going to take long and complicated negotiations to try to get another NFL team to move here. If we have the immediate opportunity to get a team located in central Maryland within 20 minutes of the Inner Harbor, especially a team that has won three Super Bowls and that could save the state $150 million that could instead go into building schools, roads and hospitals, then it's got to be considered an intriguing possibility."
The $150 million figure refers to the state's commitment to build a stadium in Baltimore to try to attract an NFL team.
No final price has been determined on the parcel of land at Laurel, according to the source, but the money would go into paying off some of the $40 million debt service that the Laurel/Pimlico tracks owe First National Bank.
The move also enhances the likelihood that De Francis will buy out his partners, Tom and Bob Manfuso, who have offered to sell him their shares in Laurel and Pimlico for $8.2 million.
De Francis is talking to several investors, and the source said he is close to reaching an agreement to buy the Manfuso shares.
Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke could not be reached for comment last night, but his spokesman, Clinton Coleman, said the mayor "never met with Mr. De Francis. He had a conversation [with him yesterday] by telephone.
"The mayor told Mr. De Francis that Mr. Cooke should first talk to the governor and told him that he thought it would be inappropriate for him to meet with Mr. Cooke until after Mr. Cooke met with the governor."
Coleman said he didn't think either the mayor or the governor would be supportive of a move until after Cooke had made an announcement that he was definitely leaving Washington.
In February, Cook and Washington officials signed a nonbinding memorandum of agreement for a new stadium.
The proposed site north of RFK Stadium, where the Redskins have played since 1961, has run into congressional delays. In 1992, Cooke tried to move the team to Alexandria, Va., but a proposed stadium at an abandoned rail yard had neither local nor state support.
Unnia Pettus, a spokeswoman for Washington Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, said officials are "continually working hard with Mr. Jack Kent Cooke and his associates to ensure that the Washington Redskins stay where they should be: the District of Columbia. We will continue to cooperate to ensure that the Washington football team remains in the hometown."
Cooke is said to be attracted to the Laurel site because of its access to major thoroughfares. The site is situated between Interstate 95 and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, as well as Route 32.
"The idea that Washingtonians have embraced the Orioles as a regional team and have contributed to the success of Camden Yards is encouraging to Mr. Cooke," Rifkin said. "He is 81. I think he is frustrated by his attempts to build a new stadium and is anxious to get it built now. He wants to cut the ribbon and see the first home game."